Nehru nurtured our rainbow diversity

Seventy years after Independence, there are reasons to revisit Nehru. Nehru knew the spirit of India and dreamt of its future as a nation. As the first prime minister of India, Nehru and his team had to ensure overall self-sufficiency, improvement of nutrition levels, sufficient clothing and housing, establishment of industries, employment generation, education, health, increase in per capita income, balance socialism with free enterprise and fight wars.

Nehru's experience as the chairman of the first Planning Commission of 1938 must have helped him tackle these challenges. Nehru's view on the role of English and other languages has made India a developed country. His approach was way ahead of his time. Nehru strived to nurture linguistic diversity within the modern nation-state. This, above all, deserves praise as language diversity makes for tolerance and allows other forms of diversity to flourish.

Nehru's views on Hindi, Sanskrit, Urdu and English languages belong to the modern idea of linguistic sensitivity. He saw the inner spirit of every language. "Sanskrit being the language of educated people, has words which have a poetic beauty, deep significance... which can't be translated into a language foreign in spirit and outlook" (Nehru, 1946). He felt that the philologists who introduced Sanskrit to the modern world, lacked poetic and romantic approach to it, which left their translations barren and sterile.

The Constituent Assembly debates on language set out to replace English with Hindi Khari Boli variety. Urdu had to be relegated, so as to bear the guilt of Partition. Nehru insisted on adding Urdu to the VIII Schedule.

The authoritarian tone of some of the Hindi supporters made Nehru remark: 'This approach will do more injury to the development of Hindi.' Nehru's fears sound prophetic today for all languages as the imposition of any language attracts resistance. His clarity on modern Indian languages was academic. He was aware of the monopoly Sanskrit and Persian had on serious literature which hampered the growth of provincial languages. It was print technology, introduced by the missionaries, with an intention of translating and spreading the Bible, that fuelled the growth of literature in provincial and tribal languages. Nehru acknowledged the work done by the missionaries on the Hill and Tribal languages as a 'service to India'.

Nehru was clear about the role of English. "English whether you call it official or not, whether you mention it in legislation or not - but English must continue to be a most important language in which a large number of people learn and perhaps learn compulsorily. But it will have to be inevitably a secondary language meant for a relatively restricted number of people" He supported the amendment proposed by Gopalaswamy Ayyar, which decided the role of English in the new nation.

Contemporary wisdom

In the face of Mahatma Gandhi's stand that Hindi alone can become the national language, how did Nehru stand his ground? Nehru believed that the acceptance of Hindi as a national language would marginalise the vernacular speakers just as English had marginalised non-English speakers. This wisdom was modern and contemporary.

His dillydallying with the formation of linguistic states has to be seen as dialectic of his stand on the language issue. Nehru decided the direction of the language policy of India, which can be termed a ''linguistic revolution" with far-reaching effects. The role of the leaders of South India in ushering this revolution has to be acknowledged, too.

Nehru believed that the modern nation need not have one single national language and that the multiple languages of India need not be sacrificed at the altar of the new nation. He was dissociating language from nationhood and bringing in multiple languages to co-exist. This move is unique to India and is non-Western. He saw that languages themselves did not come with hierarchy but the speakers of a language pit one language above another. Robert D King wonders how Nehru 'came by his sophisticated views on language matters and linguistic policies.' The language issues that surface today are due to the insistence that one language has to be dominant.

Multiple administrative languages are a metaphor for the rainbow diversity of India. But successive Union governments have used covert means to push Hindi as the national language. The 'Three Language Formula' in education was proposed as a solution.

Unfortunately, the states perceived even that as a threat to their own languages and culture. Most leaders at the state-level insist that the administrative language be the only medium of instruction, but fail to implement it. The disdain for both English and Hindi affects the life chances of rural students in an increasingly globalised era.

The solution to our language problem lies in revisiting the Constitution for guidelines and Nehru to understand its spirit. The linguistic sensitivity that Nehru exhibited then is a part of Human Rights today. Albert Einstein's response to Nehru's Discovery of India was: "It gives an understanding of the glorious intellectual and spiritual tradition of your great country." Nehru is the means to reclaim the memory of our diverse, tolerant tradition.

(The author is Associate Professor, Dept of English, Nehru Memorial College, Sullia)

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